72 hours in Burundi

SO, IT seems Rwandan buses do run on time. I realised this after just making it to the bus station with minutes to spare before the bus to Burundi pulled away. 
Kim cradles the baby chimp, Avril. Sunday Times/Courtesy
Kim cradles the baby chimp, Avril. Sunday Times/Courtesy

SO, IT seems Rwandan buses do run on time. I realised this after just making it to the bus station with minutes to spare before the bus to Burundi pulled away. 

Huddled into the Volcano Bus at 6 am with my travel partner (Brandon), our journey to Bujumbura began. What we learnt is that not only are Rwandan buses on time, but they could also be mistaken for racing cars. 

Snaking with frightening speed towards the border post, I was torn between fearing for my life and feeling rather impressed that the driver had prevented us from catapulting into a tree.

‘A small spaceship’

Attempting to keep my terror misled, I turned towards a fellow passenger and (very casually) asked, “Aren’t you terrified?!!” He smiled back and retorted: “Of what?” When I explained that commuting at this speed was not something I was used to, he responded: “Oh no, I like it.”

It seems in the haste to get home, most passengers, whether toddlers, elderly, teens or middle aged, were all content for their mode of transport to mimic the speed of a small spaceship. 

The driver simply slowed down alongside the three accidents we saw along the way (one including a pick-up truck suspended in a tree) before continuing with his swift getaway. 

On arrival, we began to walk to the house of our host whom we had met on Couch Surfing, an online travelling network that allows you to both host and be hosted by locals around the world. 

Needless to say, we got rather lost and seemed to be walking around in a sweaty daze under the scorching Burundian sun. Still taken aback that crossing the border meant our MTN SIM cards were now redundant, we relied on the kindness of strangers in the street to phone our host for better directions.

We found her in Café Gourmand, which is likely the place East African pastry lovers dream about at night. Reasonably priced and a feast for both the tummy and the eye, we soon understood why our host, Adrienne, said people came from Kigali just to buy Gourmand’s bread. 

Waters of Tanganyika

After dropping our bags at Adrienne’s house, we ventured into the market for food. With very little French to get us by, hand gestures and body language became our mother tongue. 

“Watch your bags,” at least three people warned us. We watched our bags, but not out pockets. While happily munching on some cooked corn, Brandon’s money was nipped in the blink of an eye. At least our passports were salvaged in the recesses of our bags. 

Like many of the travellers that come across the Burundian border, the highlight had to be the soft-sand and clear waters of Lake Tanganyika. Suddenly the scorching sun was no match for the solace offered by diving under a gentle wave. 

With a good book, strong sunblock and a cold drink, one could (and we did) lie baking in the sun for a good couple of hours. The crashing waves seemed to be whispering in contrast to the buzz of the markets and city centre.

And how can I forget a small, hairy creature that stole my heart the moment she wrapped her human-like fingers around mine? Avril is a baby chimp adopted by one of the resorts. 

She is not only completely tame, but also has an affinity to hiding under skirts, climbing on shoulders and being rocked like a baby. I suppose it is a tourist trap, but it is a trap that works well. 

In evening, we went to watch some stand-up comedy at a bar called Vuvuzela. Most of the jokes were in French, but the cross-dressingcomedian and bursts of English gave us enough reason to laugh alongside the crowd. 

Our trip to Burundi was too short, mainly because our visa only allowed for a three-day visit (unless we wanted to roll out more dollars that we didn’t have). 

Nonetheless, the whirlwind glimpse into a city bursting with poverty, beauty, resilience and political metamorphosis was well worth the 72 hour visit.

I could not help but feel that the lack of a Burundi version of ‘Hotel Rwanda’ meant that the politics and culture of this country were being lost to most of the outside world. This is unfortunate. 

It should not take a Hollywood film to inform the world that both the aftermath of Burundi’s turbulent past, as well as the country’s tenacity and charm, is worth seeing for one’s self.

Kim is a South Africa journalist travelling through East Africa and an intern at The New Times.

Twitter: @KimHarrisberg


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